It may have come about in far less conventional fashion than when he was headhunted from Cowdenbeath to become Hearts manager for the first time almost 17 years ago, but Craig Levein’s appointment on this occasion still makes sense on several levels.
Cynicism will linger in some quarters about how he has been parachuted into the role by Ann Budge following a three-year reign as director of football in which he can be deemed to have polarised opinion among the club’s support. While there are legitimate questions about why things have unravelled for Hearts over the past year and a half, particularly since Robbie Neilson’s departure to MK Dons nine months ago, some of the Levein-bashing has become overly personal and disproportionate to any of his perceived faults: namely recruitment, the appointment of Ian Cathro and the notion that he has had an overbearing influence on first-team affairs.
“I think that people don’t understand my role and then, of course, some people just don’t like me so they continue to say the same stuff – even though it doesn’t make sense,” said Levein in the aftermath of Neilson’s departure in December, when discussing how he is portrayed.
He was right; it is hard to escape the feeling that many people simply don’t like him and judge him in an overly vindictive manner as a result. His underwhelming reign as Scotland manager and a feisty, outspoken, combative approach in his days as a younger coach making his way with Hearts and then latterly Dundee United are contributory factors to him being framed as a persona non grata of Scottish football and even within the support of a club he previously played for and managed so impressively.
With such animosity towards him from sections of the Hearts support, placing Levein in the dugout for the rest of the season may seem an odd move at a time when the club are trying to reconnect with their supporters and rediscover some harmony. However, there is no escaping the fact his mere presence as director of football was an impediment to those prospects in the eyes of some. In removing him, temporarily at least, from his elevated position and placing him in full control of first-team affairs, Hearts have nullified an ongoing bone of contention while simultaneously appointing a first-team manager who is more experienced and more qualified than most others mentioned in connection with the vacancy over the past month.
Outwith Michael O’Neill and Steve McClaren – two names who always looked fanciful at best – Levein’s credentials stack up impressively. Scottish Cup-winning manager Paulo Sergio would have beaten the 52-year-old Fifer in the popularity stakes, while St Johnstone’s Tommy Wright, who has been thriving in management throughout Levein’s time as DOF, was also seen as a desirable option among supporters.
Levein, however, boasts a CV at the very least the equal of those two, certainly in the context of Scottish football where, national team aside, he has never failed as a manager. His ability to cope with the demands and the pressure of managing Hearts – a task he first shouldered as a 36-year-old in December 2000 – is a particularly notable feather in his cap. As Mark McGhee (Aberdeen) and Terry Butcher (Hibs) can testify, managing the biggest clubs in Scotland requires a totally different approach to that which can bear fruit at smaller clubs.
Levein, as one of Hearts’ best managers of the past 30 years and the man who set the wheels in motion for a rare period of recent Dundee United success, has proved he is a fine operator when it comes to ensuring any of the country’s bigger clubs he gets his hands on are competitive, organised and full of goals.
For all the scorn about his more recent involvement at Hearts, he has still been present at a period when the team won the Championship title in sensational fashion, finished third in the Premiership and then sat second at the onset of December last term. One ill-fated head coach appointment out of two (Cathro) and a couple of questionable transfer windows shouldn’t have the effect of turning a respected former Hearts player and manager into a pariah of the club.
Although he hasn’t worked as a manager since being sacked by Scotland almost five years ago, Levein will have broadened his horizons and enhanced his knowledge of the modern game in his time as DOF. The main question mark is whether, having been away from day-to-day club management since leaving United in 2009, he still possesses the same desire to get his hands dirty and ruffle feathers the way he did when he was working his way towards the Scotland job.
Given the brickbats that have flown his away in recent times, however, the smart money is on Hearts benefiting from an experienced and intelligent manager determined to silence his inexplicably large army of detractors.